Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In The Footsteps of Dame Helen


(Photograph by Lord Snowden for Vanity Fair)

On Sunday I had the pleasure of attending an intimate lunch at Helen Mirren's estate in the hills of Old Hollywood. She wasn't there. Two good friends of ours have been leasing her house for the last year and, on the cusp of their departure to the East Coast for an end-of-summer idyll, had a few friends over to enjoy the afternoon.

I can offer no photos of the house or of my hosts as they treasure their privacy, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I try to paint in words some of the images emblazoned in my head.

The house sits in the midst of what must be acres of land. You pass through a series of impressive security gates into an endlessly long and curving drive and become momentarily disoriented: the city falls away and you could swear you've suddenly been transported to Antibes or Juans-les-Pins. Luca, of course, was agog at the lushness of the landscape. He asked if it was the LA Zoo.

After a winding climb, we passed a 19th century hunting lodge on the grounds and parked in front of the main house, which is large and honey-colored with wooden shutters painted dark teal. Built in the early 1900's, it has the Jazz Age elegance of the grand villas in the south of France. The front door was open and we walked into a cool dark entry hall with ebony stained floors and white walls. A wrought-iron balustrade gracefully wrapped its way up to the second floor. As my friends are in the process of moving to another permanent home, most of the furniture had already been removed and the rooms were bare except for a few pieces of Helen's carefully tucked into corners. In the grand salon-cum-living room, a framed portrait of her hung on the wall, her eyes imperturbably fixed on the jetliner views of Hollywood. 

A simple, delicious buffet was laid out for us by the house staff on a long center table in the living room. We loaded up our plates and ate alfresco in the shade of the stone terrace under a small grove of trees. Far below us, the vague lilac mass of the city vibrated and rumbled. Dogs and children roamed freely about, babies napped and occasionally, a nanny's voice could be heard corralling her charges. After lunch, platters of fresh berries, butterscotch brownies and homemade tarte tatins were offered round. Luca was in absolute heaven.

We spent the afternoon there in total contentment, as you can imagine. I tried to imprint the loveliness of the house on my brain as it was the last time I'll probably ever go there (my friends are moving out imminently). If you don't know Los Angeles, it may sound surprising that houses like this still exist here...but they do. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, architectural grande dames that bore witness to the Golden Age of Hollywood and now have become historical landmarks in their own right. It's part of why I fell in love with this town; the glamour of years gone by is still such an indelible part of daily life here.

My Top Five Old Hollywood Haunts...


2. Musso and Frank Grill, opened in 1919

3. Beverly Hills Hotel, opened in 1912

4. Tower Bar, opened in 1931

5. Pacific Dining Car, opened in 1921

31 comments:

krys kirkpatrick said...

That sounds enchanting. I actually can picture it through your words. Lovely post.

Scott Fazzini said...

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I had honestly never had a desire to visit LA, until now. You are truly a skillfully talented wordsmith.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Scott: Don't be ashamed. Most people think of it as strip malls and fake boobs...but it's really not. It's bougainvillea and winding roads and night jasmine and old mansions and hiking trails and dark wood-panelled restaurants that still make Americanos the way Gary Cooper requested them... Come visit! And let me know when you do... :)

Krys: Thank you for the compliment...I'm still thinking about that house! xx

Amy said...

You have such a way with words! I am able to picture this beautiful house and setting because you wrote of it with such clarity and beauty. I feel transported back in time to the days when people spent leisurely afternoons dining, playing croquet, strolling the gardens and talking...
I love the pictures of the other Old Hollywood Haunts too!
Thank you.

Amy

skirmishofwit said...

I enjoyed your beautiful description much more than I would have some photographs. What a special lunch!

Dan Dan said...

That was enchanting!! I feel like you could be narrating a LESS scary version of 'Sunset Boulevard.' That's the LA I want to visit!

home before dark said...

I am feeling a new embroidery piece coming on about this "bougainvillea and winding roads and night jasmine and old mansions and hiking trails and dark wood-panelled restaurants" not this "strip malls and fake boobs," of course... or worse fake malls and strip boobs!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

What a perfectly delcious description. I liked it better without pictures!

My best friend and I went to LA after school and stayed with a good friend who was house-sitting in a rather grand place near the beach. We stayed for a month, and my friend never got over LA. She loved it so, and she returns at least once or twice a year to visit.

And, I want to be Helen Mirren when I grow up.

jezebel said...

I have a fantasy (deluded, I fear) of a pacific holiday (my first) that involves equal parts Nazimova's Garden of Alla and the Laurel Canyon of the 70s. Daily visits 'round your atmosphere make me think it might be possible.

Prairie Girl Studio said...

such a splendid afternoon you spent ~ thank you for taking us there and giving us a glimpse of the true glamour that still graces the hollywood hills ...
as always,
prairiegirl

pam@pixelimpress said...

sounds like a lovely afternoon, lisa. what a lovely place you portray. and of course i am now scouring the cupboards in search of butterscotch morsels to make brownies. pam

Angie said...

How lovely you write! And while I am not arguing with you about the beauty of the Hollywood Hills and Old Hollywood haunts, I believe that you're such a talented writer, you could persuade us to believe anything. :)

pve design said...

I think I would like to be Luca for a day.
pve

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Lisa-

Brilliant post.

I especially appreciate that you did not even name the canyon where Helen and her husband hide away. I love the way you did not do a stealth photo of any kind. And I love the way you captured the location with poetry-while still respecting their privacy.
Helen Mirren: one of the greats. She is so adored and admired in the English acting world (public tv has the final Tennison running now and she is breath-takingly brilliant in it). Everyone, from costume designers to actors to press love her--that is rare. What a privileged visit.
Cheers to you for your brilliant description.
Also love your picks: Yes, Musso! It's so funky and great. These old places must be visited and protected. www.thestylesaloniste.com

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Lisa-

Brilliant post.

I especially appreciate that you did not even name the canyon where Helen and her husband hide away. I love the way you did not do a stealth photo of any kind. And I love the way you captured the location with poetry-while still respecting their privacy.
Helen Mirren: one of the greats. She is so adored and admired in the English acting world (public tv has the final Tennison running now and she is breath-takingly brilliant in it). Everyone, from costume designers to actors to press love her--that is rare. What a privileged visit.
Cheers to you for your brilliant description.
Also love your picks: Yes, Musso! It's so funky and great. These old places must be visited and protected. www.thestylesaloniste.com

Laura [What I Like] said...

I had a brief moment of obsession with Helen Mirren...or perhaps not so brief. After reading her autobiography I decided that she was just about the most interesting woman around. It doesn't surprise me in the least that her house is exquisite, I am exceedingly jealous that you were able to see it!

Simply Mel said...

The photo to begin this post grabbed my attention like no other...Dame Mirren is and always will be one of my favorites. So imagine my tinge of jealous as I continued to read of your exquisite day in her glamourous abode. Thank you for taking me along this mindfully enchanting tale of beautiful days gone by...

Paul Pincus said...

i'm so jealous! i've been in love with jane tennison since high school!

You pass through a series of impressive security gates into an endlessly long and curving drive and become momentarily disoriented: the city falls away and you could swear you've suddenly been transported to Antibes or Juans-les-Pins. Luca, of course, was agog at the lushness of the landscape. He asked if it was the LA Zoo.

i loved that! thank you, lisa.

Lisa said...

I've always had this vision of Hollywood and how its stars lived. Imagine my dismay when I read about most of the new stars today and their tawdry ways. I've always envisioned the stars living in Hollywood the way Zsa Zsa Gabor/Lucille Ball/Bob Hope/Cary Grant lived. Your description of a perfect day at Helen Mirren's home has reinforced my imagination. When I was a kid, my dress-up time was always "old Hollywood" and I had the interior rooms (in my imagination) to play in it. (A 9-year-old drinking a martini!!!!) Still carries much weight in my day-to-day existence today. Thank you. Your day sounded wonderful. Lisa Musgrave

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Amy, Skirmish of Wit, Dan Dan, Prairie GIrl, Pam and Angie: I wish you could have been there. I'm so glad I was able to capture the spirit of the occasion for you.

Home Before Dark: Excellent idea for an embroidery. I can see it now.

Pamela Edward: Your LA vacation sounds fascinating. Where did you stay?? And I want to be Helen when I grow up, too...

Jezebel: Believe it or not, I can show you the Hollywood of your dreams: equal parts Alla Nazimova and hippie 60's Laurel Canyon. That's the dichotomy of this town in a nutshell and I swear it DOES still exist! Tell me if you ever come out this way and I'll make you an itinerary.

PVE: I think I would like to be Luca for a day!

Laura, SImply Mel: I know, Helen is the coolest of the cool. I felt so honored to be able to actually tread in her footsteps...!

Paul PIncus: Are you the sweetest blogger out there or what?! Thank you for your exuberance and lovely words!

Lisa: You are a woman after my own heart. I LOVE that you played dress-up with imaginary martinis. Life's too short not to try to live like that every day!

JMW said...

How divine! Helen Mirren is amazing - thanks for sharing details of her home.

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Nice that you got to see such a house in person, but even better that you shared with us this list of great places we can all visit. They look memorable.

marion said...

I think she's correctly referred to as Dame Helen. Love the post.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Marion: You are right. Ta for the clarifiction!

Julie Anne Rhodes said...

What a perfectly splendid post...I loved reading it, and I loved it was entirely painted with words for my imagination to grasp visually. More please...I think it is high time for a novel.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

You make me want to revisit LA this weekend! what a fantastic evening you had!

SparkerShop said...

Thank you for shedding light on this part of Los Angeles! Sometimes it is hard to explain the allure of LA, but you've nailed it.

bigrat598 said...

Thank you Lisa for the visit to a place I have often wondered about. I would have loved to have been in your shoes that day.

Helen is truly an international treasure. To experience the environment she created would be an unforgettable memory. You are a very fortunate person in my opinion.

bigrat598 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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